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Last year's Arab revolutions captured the world's imagination as they toppled dictators from Tunis to Sanaa. But what they haven't yet done is make life measurably better for the people throwing off the tyrant's yoke.
The price of freedom may be incalculable, but it seems equally hard to tally up the very real costs of the so-called Arab Spring. How many have died or been displaced in these conflicts? How have they affected economies and standards of living? Have they made their societies more or less stable? A look at the numbers so far makes for grim accounting: In the four most violent uprisings, in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen -- all four of which slid backward on the Failed States Index for 2012, and likely will again next year -- as many as 50,000 people have died since the revolutions began. Some $20 billion of GDP evaporated last year in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen, in addition to more than $35 billion in public finances, according to International Monetary Fund data.
But each country will assess the revolutionary toll in its own way. In Libya, clearly the staggering death tally from the civil war dwarfs all other prices. For average Egyptians, growing political tensions and the cratering economy probably outweigh the violence between protesters and security forces. Yemen was well on its way to failed statehood and economic collapse before the Arab Spring, and virtually all indicators are distinctly, and in some cases alarmingly, negative, while the benefits of the protest movement have yet to manifest themselves in any concrete way. In Syria, there is only cost -- including thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands of displacements, and an incipient economic meltdown. The benefits, if any, of the Syrian intifada will only be realized far in the future.
So, was it worth it?
Because most of these dramatic transformations are still playing themselves out, only soothsayers and knaves can give a confident answer. In spite of the ongoing violence and chaos in Libya, there appears to be very little nostalgia for Muammar al-Qaddafi. The same applies to Egypt, where the longing for Hosni Mubarak is still limited to remnants of the former regime. In those countries, where the costs have been very grave, most would say the uprisings were nonetheless worth it -- at least for now. The answer is far more complicated in Yemen, where the country's interlocking crises make it hard to untangle where the chaos began and how it will end.
It is in Syria that the biggest constituency for a "no" is probably to be found. Yet the protest movement, as well as the insurgency that arose to protect it, is not going away. The costs of unseating Bashar al-Assad will be exorbitant in blood and treasure, it is now abundantly clear. But the brutality of the crackdown is inexorably pushing ever larger numbers of Syrians to think that anybody but Assad is a better way to go.